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The Game Master On Then And Now

Hudson Soft's "game master" Toshiyuki Takahashi (aka Takahashi Meijin) analyzes the current state of the gaming market in Japan and the U.S. from his veteran's perspective, while also filling us in on some of the background details of the company's retro heyday.

Hudson is what you might call "the lost first party." Long known as a third party developer and publisher of games ranging from Mario Party to the Bomberman series, the company, originally founded in the '70s, was also the shepherd of its own platform: the PC Engine, or TurboGrafx-16, manufactured and sold in partnership with NEC Home Electronics.

That doesn't matter much these days, except to retro game fans, but it does give the people who have been at the company for a long time -- like Toshiyuki Takahashi, affectionately known as "Takahashi-Meijin," or Game Master Takahashi -- a certain perspective.

Takahashi was catapulted to celebrity in Japan in the 1980s, becoming a role model to Famicom (NES) obsessed Japanese kids thanks to his game playing skills. His celebrity may have faded, but he continues to work at Hudson in its publicity department, and offers a 20-plus year understanding of the market.

Here, he's interviewed alongside Kazufumi Shimizu, director of Hudson's upcoming Wii horror game Calling, about the state of the market in Japan and the U.S., where Hudson has found notable success with its downloadable Bomberman Live for the Xbox 360.

Thanks to that, the company will soon follow up with the first new Bonk's Adventure game in years -- an XBLA and PlayStation Network title.

With Gamasutra's fixation on history, of course, we couldn't resist asking Takahashi about the PC Engine, in particular about the origins of its CD-ROM2 System, one of the first CD-ROM gaming systems to launch in the world (and the first to hit the U.S., in 1989.)

Today's Hudson

Brandon Sheffield: This might be a rude question -- in the past, Hudson had a habit of taking any game genre and making its own, better version of it. For example, Nectaris was based on Famicom Wars, and Neutopia was based on Zelda. Hudson applied more polish to them, though, and more "heart" to them. You are a different sort of Hudson now.

Toshiyuki Takahashi: Well, up until around 2000 or 2001, we retained that same philosophy of leaving it to the programmers, letting them create whatever they wanted to create. But from the perspective of the company, not all of the results were entirely successful. Sales continued to go down as a result, and we accrued more and more debt.

In 2001 Konami bought a bunch of our stock and became more-or-less our parent company. Since then, we've been trying more to ensure that each of our individual releases are more profitable. So you could say that the current climate makes it hard for programmers to simply create whatever they want to any longer.

BS: That kind of mandate tends to create more generic games rather than the more forward-moving games.

TT: Yeah, and I suppose a year or two ago -- maybe three -- we realized this wasn't the best approach. That doesn't mean we went back to the old ways, but with each game, we tried to listen to gamers' opinions more via playtests and so on; we treated each project with more care than we used to.

That's how we're doing it now, so the direction has shifted a bit. With the Hudson up to now, something like Calling never would've happened. Our business was in cutesy games with multiplayer support, so we could never have made this.

Hudson's never made this sort of haunted house-style game before, but now we have people like [director Kazufumi] Shimizu here coming up with ideas like this, and now we have the company telling them go ahead with it. That's what the past two or three years have been like here. We're seeing the initial results right now, but I'm really looking forward to what we'll have next year and the year after that, things we've never done before.

BS: If the programmers are working on what they want to make, the results will probably be more fun to play. You actually care about it as a developer.

TT: Our company system changed again this year -- boy, it's changed a lot of times! We're trying to implement a producer-driven system now. A single producer now takes the responsibility for taking a game project and putting it under his wing, so to speak, figuring out how to advertise it and so forth.

The process used to be separate, but now someone is on the team's side, showing off what's good and fresh about the project, and it helps the staff mesh better as a team. That's the system that started this year, and I'm looking forward to seeing the results of that next year.

BS: A real director-style system.

TT: Right. Shimizu's a programmer, and until now, his job would've been done after the program was complete. He'd think up the design for the manual and so on, but someone else designed the webpage, for example. Now it's different; he's the one who figures out what the Calling homepage should be like. The people who know the most about the project are now the ones directing its public image.

Christian Nutt: I'm curious about Calling -- there's been discussion about whether the Wii audience can support more mature games. What do you think about that issue?

Kazufumi Shimizu: Well, when we started developing Calling, it was with the knowledge that the Wii marketplace might be a tough one to crack for it. However, when it comes to the controls and the experience, the Wii is really the platform that's best suited for it. The Wii has a pretty family-friendly image, of course, and everyone knew from the start that it'd be tough for this game in the marketplace. But we wanted it on the Wii; we wanted to take [the remote] and use it like a phone.


Calling

From a pure developer standpoint, though, no one can say whether something will sell or not at the outset -- and like what Takahashi said earlier, if you aren't passionate about the game you're making, then it's not going to have a chance in the first place. You need that sort of force working on it. If all you think about is money and finances, then you tend to put what you want to do on the back burner.

I think the higher-ups understand this -- even though the Hudson of the past had a lot of failure, there were definitely a lot of diamonds in the rough, too. Besides, it all comes down to the game. If the game is interesting, then it'll attract both kids and adults on the Wii. It's hard for the Wii at present, but no matter what the platform, if it's good, people will come to it.

BS: With a small staff, it sort of becomes a battle between your ideas and the budget.

KS: Certainly. We're all designers here to some extent and we all have ideas on what we want to do, but naturally we can't run through all of them. But we had an environment where people felt discouraged to be creative and discuss what they really wanted to make, and I think that's what we're really improving upon here, right now and into the future.

BS: A new Bonk is being developed in the US. How did that come about, and why hasn't Hudson supported the series in Japan as much?

TT: Well, it's not that we haven't supported it so much as...That's more of a question for Mike [from the U.S. office]. But the U.S. staff just absolutely loves Bonk. They begged to get a new one out! And we figured that since Bomberman Live was a pretty decent success, selling something like half a million units, we figured that if they love the idea that much, we could rely on them to produce something really fun. So that's why they're making it.


Marketplace Musings

BS: I hear that WiiWare games don't sell much.

TT: It'd be nice if they did a bit more.

BS: I don't know anything about Virtual Console sales, but how do Hudson's VC games fare?

TT: Well, speaking in terms of all our downloadable offerings, our top-selling product is the Bomberman that was made over in the U.S. That's because a very large chunk of 360 owners is connected to Xbox Live.

Unfortunately, while Japan has a huge percentage of its population as internet users, only about 40 percent of them connect their game consoles up. It's still not that much. I think that'll gradually go up in the future, and we'll really begin to see the transition starting this year.

Makers will keep putting out neat stuff for WiiWare and DSiWare, and users will begin to notice en masse all the things that're available. When you look at the DS, it sold just okay for a while, but when Brain Age came out, bam! Sales shot through the roof.

If we can get one title with that kind of performance power for WiiWare or DSiWare, then you'll see a similar expansion.


Bomberman Live

BS: So Nintendo needs to come up with something.

TT: Yeah. But there's another problem Nintendo has to work out with the DS platform, and that's the proliferation of piracy. That's a fatal blow to software houses here. Dragon Quest IX's release date was October 15, but it was already all over the net by the 13th.

It's not that Nintendo's been completely lazy with this, and I know it's unavoidable to some extent, but... With the iPhone, everything goes through their own store, and no matter what you're connecting with the home office, so to speak.

BS: A broader question, but what do you think of the Japan game industry at present?

TT: I think it needs to change. Twenty years ago, you had the core group of kids that played Famicom games. As that group's grown up, the game industry's continued to cater to their needs over the years, essentially cutting off anyone older or younger. They're making games without thinking about these other groups. I think that needs to be rethought.

Targeting a particular age range isn't a bad thing in itself, but we need to have more games that target a core of younger users, or else there won't be anything left. You can play games on all kinds of platforms these days, too, like cell phones.

BS: Another rude question here, perhaps. Does Japan really have what you could call core users, or gamers? Lots of people have systems here, yes, but they always seem to be purchasing brain-training stuff or something. I'm not sure how many Famicom users are still interested in games.

TT: Neither do I.

BS: They aren't completely gone, but they're dwindling.

TT: Famicom users from back then are in their 30s or 40s today, after all. They've got families and children of their own, and they haven't got a lot of free money because of the recession. So, yeah, a lot of old Famicom owners have drifted away from games.

I think the 20-something gamers are the current core fanbase for the industry, people that started with the PS1 or PS2 and never touched the Famicom. And then you have the other target base, the young adult ladies who purchase brain-training games and so on. That's another "core," if you will.

BS: A lot of people have nostalgia for games, though, and that group doesn't seem as interested in modern games.

TT: I write in a blog daily, and I always get comments along the lines of "Oh, I played Adventure Island! Wow, that brings me back!" And that's all they say -- they aren't playing anything now. That's what ex-core users are like.

KS: There are too many options to choose from now. You can play games on your cell phone quickly and easily, and it's the same on the net, too. The sort of people who played the Famicom and hung out in arcades can now get a far better experience in the comfort of their own homes -- really, on their cell phones, even. So you have this group that samples a broad range of stuff but never really explores anything deeply.

There are lots of options, but it's tough for an individual title to grab the attention of a great deal of people. Maybe a game's immediately fun once you try it out, but there are fewer opportunities for that connection to be made with modern gamers, I think. Core gamers follow the scene enough that you hardly need to advertise to them, but normal people aren't like that.

TT: They aren't going to do the looking for you. You have to show them on the TV.


BS: A lot of core users don't really see Wii Sports and Brain Age as real games.

TT: That's the classic core user, yeah.

BS: There might be a lot more core users in the U.S. A lot of them say things like, "Nintendo has abandoned core users." I think that's interesting, because they used to be kids and played so-called kiddie games.

Perhaps the casual DS audience in Japan would become core users if they played more "real" games like Dragon Quest IX.

TT: Well, I think most serious American gamers are playing on their 360s, not on the Wii. There aren't a lot of core users among casual game fans. I don't know how many core gamers play casual games. By that definition I suppose Bomberman is a casual game, but...

BS: In the U.S., you have mothers buying the Wii with Wii Sports, buy Wii Sports Resort and that's it.

TT: That and music games.

BS: Yeah. But a lot of them just have a Wii and those two games. It's a worry to me.

TT: You could say that's because it's a fun experience, even if it's not exactly a game.

BS: Toy-like.

TT: Right. They're using the Wii as a toy, not as a game system.

BS: That's why I think core users are important. Core users are always on the lookout for new titles; they buy 10 or so titles a year. One core user may be worth five times a casual user in terms of money.

TT: They're very important, of course. Those are the sort of people who played Bonk and Bomberman and so on back then, and I'd like to think they're the sort of people who'd be interested in Bonk and Military Madness today. I'd like to see those titles generate a lot of buzz.

BS: I really liked Hudson's games back then. I feel like Hudson doesn't play up its retro heritage enough -- making its old games into 3D rather than remake them with a retro feeling to attract those old users back.

KS: The hardware's certainly expanded a lot since then, for one. There's nothing stopping us from releasing a game with that retro-graphics feel, definitely. The thing is that if we do that, than no matter how faithful and nostalgic it is, a lot of users are going to say that it looks cheap and low-quality, no matter what.

A lot of users are jaded to modern graphic standards. Maybe I look for gameplay above everything else in the games I play, but a lot of games these days aren't really games so much as interactive movies. Final Fantasy is pretty much a movie now. I, personally, think there need to be more novel ideas in games, but you have to attain a certain standard.

TT: In conclusion, yes, we could make a game like that, but the stores probably wouldn't buy it from us, currently. We'd have to do it on DSiWare or somesuch, but it wouldn't show up in stores.


Bonk: Brink of Extinction

BS: Mega Man 9 was digitally distributed, yeah. Users saw the game and were happy to see it.

TT: Yeah, but even now -- this is all hypothetical, but let's say that the PS3, Xbox and Wii never existed. If the Famicom and the PC Engine were the only consoles in existence, I think there would've been a lot more innovative, original games out there right now. There'd have to be, because the graphics can only go so far.

But the thing is, it's like watching an old Disney hand-drawn film like Dumbo and then immediately watching one supported by computers. You get jaded visually, no matter what. You can't go back to the old stuff. If you eat a fancy dinner, you don't want to go right back to ramen.

But... okay, lots of people like ramen (laughs) But that ramen keeps getting better, and more expensive. That's the difference.

BS: Maybe you can't go back to ramen, but for example, tomato ramen is an interesting new thing.

TT: I'm sorry, I don't know that much about food... (laughs) I know what you mean, but...

BS: I know what you mean, too, but Mega Man 9 isn't ramen, it's tomato ramen -- Ramen plus something else interesting.

TT: Well, Bomberman Live is the original Japanese Bomberman with some American tastes added to it. I think that's kind of neat, outside of the controls and all that, and I'd like to see more of that sort of thing in the future.

When I played Bonk I wondered why modern tanks and stuff show up in the game, but I think atmosphere-wise it's just as it was before. If that does well, then I think everyone will notice and that'll get some momentum rolling, but previous attempts at retro-style games have not been successful. If we're going to do it, it'd have to be on DSiWare or WiiWare or somewhere, and it'd have to be inexpensive and not the sort of thing that you could sell in stores.


A History Lesson

BS: What was the original drive from Hudson to put the CD forth as a medium for game consoles?

TT: Well, there were two reasons. First off was manufacturing time. For a PC Engine HuCARD, or for that matter a NES or Famicom cartridge, it took two or three months to manufacture a batch for sale. If you wrapped up the production of your game in May, then you'd send it to the factory, and even in the best of situations, August would be the earliest you could put it on sale.

With a CD, meanwhile, all you have to do is run a pressing and you're done -- if you've got the instruction manuals printed, then the turnaround time was about a week. It was a huge difference in speed, and it also gave developers the ability to use that former downtime to debug and polish their work, which resulted in better games.

Also, in terms of memory space, a HuCARD could contain no more than eight megabits -- and that was up from the four-megabit limit the year previous. That's why R-Type had to be split up into two separate releases [in Japan]; there wasn't enough space. [Ed. note: The original HuCARD size limit was 2Mbit, and so R-Type I and II are 2Mbit each.]

CDs, meanwhile, can hold 640 megabytes, so really, a programmer could implement pretty much whatever he thought of doing on that medium.

CN: I read that NEC was more interested in changing the format because they were a hardware manufacturer. Is that the case? How do you remember it?

TT: Well, at the very beginning, CD-ROM wasn't even around -- we were talking about audio CDs. When it first got its start, Hudson distributed its programs on cassette tape, and our first idea was to use the medium in that sort of way [Ed. note: storing programs as analog audio data].

However, at the time, a CD drive would've just been way too expensive to build a home system out of. Afterwards... I'm not exactly sure which side brought it up first, but certainly one motivation behind NEC's support was that they'd be the first company in the world to use CDs for games.

BS: This was also a time when CD-ROM was moving from Red Book to Green Book, so there was another risk as well.

TT: Well, ahead of that, the initial discussion we had was whether we might be able to simply use audio CDs as the storage medium by themselves. The Red Book/Green Book formats are simply the format for storing audio and program data on a CD, respectively, so from a technological standpoint that wasn't the obstacle.

We took a pretty loose approach to it at the time; we figured that either way would work in the end. Of course, once we actually got to work on the tech, we realized that CDs can only store 70 minutes of music. Once we put in the audio data we wanted, there was a lot less space available for program content. That was something we didn't think about at first, so games wound up having a fair bit less music than we originally intended.

BS: This reminds me of how every PC Engine CD has track one explaining that this is a CD-ROM, so don't put it in your CD player. Getting rid of that minute-and-a-half-long message, you could've freed up a little more space.

TT: (laughs) Well, it's not that we wanted it to be that long; it just took that long to lay out everything we needed to say. If we didn't put that warning in, then people might actually put the disc in their CD players -- and if they had the volume up high enough, the results had the possibility of damaging their speakers.

The program track is just a stream of 0s and 1s, and there was no way for us to ensure that the track wouldn't emit extreme high-decibel tones when played as an audio CD. To prevent that -- to limit our liability, I guess you could say -- we had to expressly put all this out, and that's why the message went that long.

In terms of size, it really doesn't take up that much space. If this [meeting room] table was a CD, then that warning would take up about as much space as this business card. I'd need to check this, but I think the amount of RAM in the PC Engine [CD-ROM system] was about half the size of this card.

BS: From a marketing standpoint, how did you say "It's time to switch to CDs"? They were expensive, after all.

TT: To put it simply, we made people think it was awesome. We talked about how you could put the equivalent of 3000 Famicom games into a single disc; that was how amazing this new piece of media was. The other thing was that the games talked -- the characters actually spoke to you, creating this movie-like effect that was really shocking.


BS: Where did the CD-ROM² [pronounced "CD rom-rom"] branding come from?

TT: Well, our main audience were gamers who already had a lot of HuCARDs and Famicom cartridges, so that naming was meant to communicate that this is more than just another ROM-based medium -- it was something bigger, better, more powerful.

CN: Something I read is that at the time, you couldn't burn CDs the way you can today, so the developer kits actually had to emulate CDs via interlinked hard drives. Was that the case at the time?

TT: The development kit? Well, you see home servers and so on these days that have terabytes and terabytes of storage, but back then hard drives were more like 80MB or 40MB.

If I'm remembering it right, we would connect eight 80MB hard disks together and used that as our CD-ROM development platform. As time went on 120MB and 240MB drives came on sale, so the number of drives you needed eventually went down.

BS: One risk you took with the PC Engine system was the Multitap. I think Hudson was the first company to have five-player support, and I think that was important, to have the whole family playing.

TT: I'd say we weren't the first with the idea of multiplayer gaming so much as we were the first to produce Bomberman. We wanted to have five people -- well, it could've been four, really, but -- all lined up in front of a single screen playing together, and it just so happened that the Multitap made that possible.

BS: What do you think of Xbox Live? You could call it the logical conclusion of Hudson's idea.

TT: Yeah. Whether you're all in the same room or you're playing over the net, the fact that you're all playing together naturally doesn't change. I don't think the concept is all that different; it's all in the method.

BS: Did Hudson have any online-play ideas at the time? Via modem or something?

TT: Not at the time, no. Later on, we made a version of Bomberman for the Game Boy that let you connect two or four GBs with cables and enjoy multiplayer that way.

Even with the cables, though, the communication speed between consoles was really slow; keeping things in sync was a huge pain. You'd only get a few updates per second, and the program would sort of have to bluff the other players' movements on each individual screen. That was what we dealt with even with dedicated hardware, so the conventional wisdom was that gaming via modem in realtime was even more impossible.

BS: The CD-ROM System was an add-on to the Core System. Hudson and NEC managed to make that work, but other companies like Sega and Nintendo had a much more difficult time making its own peripherals, like the Disk System and the Sega CD, popular. Why did that succeed on the PCE? Or was it a problem? (laughs)

TT: Well, it was mostly Hudson making these requests for new hardware -- they'd come up with ideas for games, then formulate the hardware they needed to make it happen. The Arcade Card came about because the programmers asked for more internal RAM to work with. Hudson discussed these concepts with NEC, of course, but it was largely Hudson that conceived and prototyped these peripherals, so the whole process was pretty smooth.

BS: In my mind, Hudson's add-ons were largely driven by software. For example, if you wanted to play Fatal Fury 2, you needed an Arcade Card.

TT: Right, and if you wanted to play Tengai Makyo 2, you needed a Super CD-ROM System. The projects were really based off the needs for the programmer. In the case of Tengai Makyo 2, the programmer would say "To implement this, I'd need to load four times on a single map, and I don't want to do that. I wanna do it in a single load, so give me four times the RAM I have now."

The negotiations that would result from requests like that is what ultimately led to the final product. So Hudson was usually the outfit that conceived the add-ons, and for the most part those add-ons were inspired by the programmers' needs.

CN: I was 13 when I got a Turbo CD, and since I was getting a little older, I thought that this is cooler, more technically advanced than the NES. Was that intentional? Were you trying to get the same audience as the NES?

TT: Our target audience at first was kids from five to 10 and up. Later on that got expanded, though. The real goal for us, though, was to create a console that would make it much easier for a programmer to take whatever idea he had and put it into action.

CN: Back when Hudson was getting its first popularity with the Famicom and the PC Engine, the market was mostly for kids, like you said, but there were a lot more original games.

Now, it's a lot harder for original kids' games; it's much more based around licenses. Hudson still does some, but what do you think about the transformation of the market? It seems like the drive's been toward doing original games for adults and then kids' games based on movies or whatever.

TT: I think it's really a shame, yeah. I think it'd be nice to see more original characters getting debuted in games and then moving on to other forms of media. I'd like to see that happen, but -- and this is as true in the U.S. as it is in Japan -- the sales department is primarily interested in whatever character sold the most product last year

No matter what you do with an original character, it's always going to have an uphill battle in this respect. Developers want to put out all kinds of new characters, of course, but the marketplace is just not ready to accept them. That's the way things have become, and it is a disappointment.

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